It’s year five of the California drought. A few remote communities have already run out of water. The governor announced aggressive water restrictions. But what will happen to the state if the drought doesn’t end?

The possibility of a megadrought—lasting two decades or longer—is actually fairly likely in California. The last 150 years have been unusually wet, and at a few earlier points in history, the state had droughts lasting more than a century. NASA predicts that a decades-long drought will be even more likely to happen this century due to climate change.

Still, that doesn’t mean that Angelenos and San Franciscans will have to pack up and move. Surprisingly, when researchers at the University of California-Davis mad a computer model of a 72-year drought, they found that the state would emerge battered but with an economy almost as strong as before.

But to survive, the state will have to get a lot smarter about managing the little rain that falls. Here are five things California can do differently.


The traditional bright green lawn doesn’t make much sense in a dry climate. In some communities, as much as 50-80% of water is used just to irrigate outdoor landscapes like lawns and golf courses. Cities like L.A. already offer rebates to people who tear up their front lawns and put in succulents and other drought-tolerant native plants, and in a megadrought, this will happen more. Now, the governor’s new executive order will require the state to replace 50 million square feet of lawns with new landscaping.


Even in a drought, there’s a little bit of rainfall. The problem is that much of that rain runs off rooftops, driveways, and roads, and drains into the ocean instead of going into the ground, where it could replenish groundwater supplies, or into storage containers.

Researchers at Woodbury University are working with architects and urban planners to figure out how every building in a city can act as a sponge instead, soaking up and storing water for later use. In a city like L.A., as much as 82% of the water the city needs could be provided by a combination of conservation and capturing stormwater.


The vast majority of the water used in California goes to agriculture, growing food that is sold around the country. In the UC Davis study, the researchers found that agriculture would be hardest hit in a drought. It’s possible that as much as half of farmland could go fallow, as farmers run out of water or choose to sell their water rights to cities instead (L.A. is already offering farmers $700 per acre foot of water, more than most would make if they chose to grow crops).

Some water-intensive crops, like the almond, may be replaced by others that can thrive in drier weather. Others, like grapes grown for wine, will shift to more drought-tolerant varietals. Farmers may also choose to grow the crops that can earn the most money for the water used, rather than low-value crops like corn or wheat that can more easily be grown in other parts of the country.


When a pipe burst at UCLA a couple of years ago, spilling 20 million gallons of drinking water in the middle of the drought, it pointed to a bigger problem: Across the state, leaky pipes lose about 228 million gallons of water every year, more than the city of L.A. uses annually. While some cities are starting to replace pipes completely, others are reducing water pressure so less water is lost, or using new technology to find specific leaks. Eventually, more cities may experiment with technology like new “smart” pipes that can both find leaks and generate energy as water rushes through.